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Sixteen years ago the Pet... 

Sixteen years ago the Pet Shop Boys wouldn't be doing this. Blatantly lip-synched promo appearances underlined the fact that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were the quintessential nontouring band ... if they were a band at all.

By now, however, the dour duo of seething Britishness have headlined a number of tours, three of which have crossed the U.S. And they did it their way, opting for elaborate set designs and staged experiences in lieu of the feedback rattle of the standard Rock Tour.

"We enjoyed getting into all of the theatrics of our previous tours," says Tennant, on the phone from New York. "But on this tour, we're doing something completely different, because of the style of the record. We're doing something that, for the first time, presents the Pet Shop Boys as musicians."

That record, "Release," finds the Pet Shop Boys in predominantly minimalist mode, due in large part to the strummy presence of guitar hero Johnny Marr (The Smiths) on nine of its 10 tracks. It's a departure for a band whose last recording, 1999's "Nightlife," presented the band in 19th-century wigs and bondage pants all wrapped up in gay-dance ecstacy.

More to the point, "Release" serves as a justification for a largely misunderstood pop act that's somehow managed 16 years of relevance.

"I sometimes suspect that people think that our records are sort of magically made by machines," says Tennant. "We've never really credited ourselves with doing anything. Of course, we are at the end of the day musicians. So, on this tour we have two guitarists, a percussionist and Chris playing keyboards ... and me playing guitar and singing. It's a really different take on the Pet Shop Boys."

But not that different. Still present on "Release" are the patented observational narratives and wistful production washes. It's just that this time, the predatory electronica edge has been pushed aside to reveal the simple beauty of the songs themselves.

The first single, "Home and Dry," details the loneliness that comes from temporary separation. "There's a plane at JFK/ to fly you back from far away/ all those dark and frantic/ transatlantic miles," it swoons.

"The song is about being in love with someone who's away on a business trip," laughs Tennant, forever the realist. "We always try to put real life in our songs, and that's a pretty real situation. Also, it's imbued with an anxiety about flying and the whole traveling process. That was made really strong after the events of Sept. 11, although this song was written a year before that."

Slightly more out of character is the beer-swaying camaraderie of "I Get Along," a sort of gay "I Will Survive" for the eternally cheated upon. "Release" has even spawned the requisite controversy, in the form of the swanky shuffler "The Night I Fell in Love." The song describes a situation in which a rap fan, ostensibly attending an Eminem concert ("Then he joked, 'You're name isn't Stan, is it?/ We should be together!'"), goes home with the rapper for a sexual encounter.

"A lot of our songs are inspired by contemporary events, or arguments," says Tennant. "The Night I Fell in Love" was inspired by the controversy over Elton John performing with the rapper at the Grammys, and led to a bemused reaction from Eminem producer Dr. Dre, who first heard the song when it was played for him by MTV News. "He goes, 'What the fuck is this?!' recalls Tennant, still tickled by it. "It's one of my proudest moments."

But will it play in Peoria? The concept of American success has always been a difficult one for the Pet Shop Boys, whose string of radio hits ("West End Girls," "Opportunities," "It's a Sin," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," "Always on My Mind" and "Domino Dancing") ended only three years into their career. But it doesn't seem to faze Tennant anymore.

"The great thing about us in America is that we have an audience there, a loyal audience," he says. "We can tour and play to two or three thousand -- or even more, depending on where we are -- and yet we get no radio play. In America, I guess, we're a genuine alternative."

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